Thursday, January 27, 2011

Book Review: The Geography of Bliss

Subtitled "One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World," this book is exactly that: Eric Weiner (pronounced "whiner," he points out) decides to find the "wheres" of happiness. Why do happiness experts proclaim that places like Holland, Switzerland, Bhutan, Qatar, Iceland, Thailand and India house the happiest people in the world?

Weiner travels to each of those countries—as well as Moldova, the unhappiest country—to try to make sense of happiness. He comes up with all sorts of possibilities:
  • "Happiness is low expectations."
  • "Maybe we can't really be happy without first coming to terms with our mortality."
  • "Trust is a prerequisite for happiness."
  • "The greatest source of happiness is other people."
  • "People who are too busy are happier than those who are not busy enough."
  • "Happiness is not the absence of suffering but the presence of something."

His experiences in each country were fascinating. I thoroughly loved Weiner as a narrator. He was just self-deprecating enough but not so much as to be annoying, and he was never arrogant. I laughed a lot. I found his descriptions of the people in these countries to be terribly enlightening, although at times he did drag on some. But still, the book is an excellent cultural journey.

He comes back to the United States in the end, and I loved the way he wrapped up the book with a return to his roots. (The U.S., by the way, is ranked 23rd among countries on the happiness sacle.) What makes Americans happy, he wonders? Not surprisingly, the number 1 answer was money. But in spite of our blatant materialism, we think about happiness and celebrate happiness more than any other country, says Weiner.

In the end, he says, he had some "nagging doubts" about his journey. Is happiness really the most important thing anyway? Is "are you happy" even the right question?

My only gripe with this book is that Weiner totally leaves out religion. The closest he comes to a discussion of the effects of religion on happiness is when he is in India. For me this was the elephant in the room, and I can't quite grasp how Weiner could have completely ignored this. Or why.

Nonetheless, I highly recommend the book. I hope Weiner finds more than "50/50" happiness in his own life—or is that even possible for a self-proclaimed grump? Hmm.

Other Reviews of The Geography of Bliss
The Book Kitten
Sophisticated Dorkiness
Lotus Reads
Regular Rumination

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Book Review: Amy and Isabelle

Elizabeth Strout's Amy and Isabelle was a great way to start off the new year. I read it all on January 1, on which I had the rare luxury of being able to spend the entire day reading, napping, and occasionally eating.

I loved Olive Kitteridge and Abide with Me, and I'm happy to say that Strout did not disappoint with her first novel, Amy and Isabelle. This is the story of a mother and daughter with a lot of secrets between them. Not an uncommon theme, but Strout tells it so well.

Until this particular summer, Amy and her mother, Isabelle, have lived a solitary life. Isabelle prefers to keep her distance from the rest of the community, and shy Amy follows suit. But something happens in the midst of Amy's school year that leads to a total upheaval in their quiet and lonely world. As in her other two novels, this one takes place in a small town in New England, and a host of well-drawn characters join Amy and Isabelle as their stories unfold.

Apparently there is a TV movie based on this novel that gets fairly good ratings. I might try to find this, although it's not available on Netflix.

If you haven't read any Elizabeth Strout yet, please do. She is truly a wonderful writer, and I look forward to whatever she has coming up next.

Other Reviews of Amy and Isabelle
Reviews by Lola
The Written World
Babbette's Book Blog
Civil Thoughts

Monday, January 10, 2011

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

I'm about four chapters into The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner. Subtitled "One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places on Earth," this is Weiner's account of his journey throughout the world in search of the happiest countries.

So far I've traveled with Weiner to Holland, Switzerland, Bhutan, and Qatar, and I have to say that each one of these chapters has been fascinating, although at times a bit off topic. Weiner has a quirky sense of humor that I appreciate. I have skimmed sections to get to the meat of the story, but for the most part this is a great read so far.

Thus far I'm not about to move to any of these countries, but he sure does make Bhutan sound appealing. Switzerland, not so much. This is our book club's selection for the month, and I think we'll have some great discussion material at our next meeting.

Linked up on Book Journey

Sunday, January 2, 2011

2010 Review and Top Ten

In 2010 I reviewed a total of 48 books and read about 60. (I didn't review most of the juvenile fiction that I read aloud to my kids or read for classes that I teach.) This is just about exactly the same as the previous several years.

This was a good reading year with many memorable books. Narrowing my favorites down to a Top 10 list is always difficult, but here we go:

Top 10 Books Read in 2010

* My favorite book of the year, as I explained in this post, was Girl in Translation. But all of the books above were worthy contenders, and several others nearly made the list.

* As always, most of the books I read in 2010 were fiction; however, I do love nonfiction, particularly memoirs, and read seven:

I absolutely loved Beautiful Boy, Long Way Gone, and The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. I'm planning to read more nonfiction in 2011.

• I added 42 book to my Ever-Growing TBR list, and I marked off just 24. That means that over half of the books I read in 2010 did not come from my TBR list, so it continues to grow faster than I can conquer it. But that's OK. I learned about books from posts on The Sunday Salon, Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books, the Book Review Carnival, from various internet sources, and especially from other book bloggers.

• I also read lots of juvenile fiction, both to my own kids and as part of literature classes that I teach. I can't remember all of these, but some are: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe; Prince Caspian; The Voyage of the Dawn Treader; Maniac Magee; Crazy Lady; Tangerine; Sounder; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry; When My Name Was Keoko ; The Winged Watchman; Cheaper by the Dozen.

• Below is the total list of books read, minus the juvenile fiction. Each link leads to a review. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.